Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. April 14, 2022.

Editorial: Republicans must fix the mail-in voting mess they created

Texas Democrats and civil rights advocates warned that sweeping voter restrictions approved by the Republican-controlled legislature last year would disenfranchise voters. Sadly, the predictions are coming true.

Nearly 25,000 mail-in ballots cast in the March 1 primary elections -- more than 12% of the total ballots mailed -- were rejected because voters of both parties struggled to comply with confusing new rules for voting by mail. Texas Republicans sold this and other overzealous voting restrictions in the name of “election security,” based on the falsehood that voter fraud is rampant. Let’s be clear: The evidence proves it is not.

The new mail-in ballot restrictions are creating roadblocks for law-biding voters who simply want to participate in our democracy. In Travis County, election officials were forced to toss more than 1,000 mail-in ballots in the March primary. In Houston-based Harris County, a heavily Democratic area the GOP targeted with restrictions in their 2021 law, Black areas were 44% more likely to have ballots rejected than white areas, according to a New York Times analysis. This tracks with accusations that the GOP’s intent was to make it harder for people of color, many of whom support Democrats, to vote.

The 12% statewide rejection rate is appallingly high -- at least 10 percentage points higher than comparable figures for the 2018 and 2020 midterm and presidential elections. Even some Republicans concede the new mail-in ballot rules are confusing and complicated.

State leaders should address this erosion of trust in the Texas electoral system immediately.

If Gov. Greg Abbott and the state legislature want to ensure that every vote counts in Texas, they should convene a special session and repeal the new mail-in ballot requirements before the November general election. If they won’t, Abbott should authorize spending -- in addition to money already in the Secretary of State’s budget -- to educate voters on how to comply with the mail-in ballot requirements. And the state should get creative with its messaging, using social media, text messages, and other tools to reach the most voters possible.

In the meantime, important runoff elections - including in the Texas attorney general and railroad commission races -- are looming next month. The registration deadline for early voting in the runoffs is Monday, April 25. Applications to vote by mail must be received (not just postmarked) by April 26.

The new election law requires mail-in voters to include their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number under the flap of the envelope that contains their ballot. That number must match the number on the voter’s registration record. If an individual registers to vote using one form of ID and applies for a mail-in ballot using the other number, the application must be rejected.

All this confusion doesn’t instill confidence in Texas elections, as Republicans promised. It erodes it. Abbott blamed hard-working local election officials for misinterpreting the new law and rejecting more ballots than necessary. But the blame for this fiasco lies squarely with him and Republicans in the legislature who passed voting restrictions that weren’t necessary in the first place.

Abbott and the state legislature should fix their mail-in ballot crisis in Texas immediately, and restore confidence in this cherished hallmark of our democracy -- voting.

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Dallas Morning News. April 15, 2022.

Editorial: In Texas school libraries, school boards should be careful what they wish for

Adopt TEA recommendations, but don’t expect resolution

The struggle over what books are on the shelves in school libraries is more smoke than fire.

The reality is that all but a handful of books are not worthy of objection. But that is not to say there is no cause for concern.

Reasonable people should agree that books containing graphic sexual images shouldn’t be available in Texas public schools, and we have seen at least one example where that was the case.

Had such a title not gotten onto the shelf in the first place, maybe school libraries would not now be subject to the sort of intense scrutiny they are under. Or maybe they would. Many of the complaints we’ve seen about books are less about the images and scenes they depict than the ideas they convey — and that’s worrisome.

It’s not clear that any effort to resolve the concerns that have been raised will be successful. First, it’s become a valuable political wedge, and those rarely go away easily.

But it’s also true that the question of what is appropriate for which student is too subjective to be pinned down. And the nature of communal standards for content has shifted so rapidly, to both the left and the right, that people are quick to disagree now not only about new material but about books that not so long ago didn’t raise any concerns at all.

All that said, we support the Texas Education Agency’s attempt to more deeply involve parents and school boards in the question of what books are appropriate in school libraries. The plan does not come without concern. It’s easy to imagine misguided school boards elected by reactionary parents removing all sorts of important and valuable material from school libraries in ways that target works with challenging ideas or about vulnerable populations.

But parents and children ultimately have the most at stake in schools. And it is wholly reasonable to give them a voice in what material their libraries offer, something most school districts already offer anyway. It’s equally reasonable to have the elected body that represents those parents have a say in ordering materials and in the inclusion or exclusion of certain works.

We nevertheless expect that this will all end in a lesson of being careful what you wish for. School boards that adopt the TEA’s recommended policy may come to regret the day they took on the librarian’s job.

It’s easy to join the chorus of complaints about individual titles. It’s far harder to select works that will enrich the lives and minds of children, not run afoul of federal law prohibiting banning material based solely on ideas expressed and not offend anyone.

It sounds like a downright impossible job. Which is exactly what it has become for school librarians lately.

Perhaps getting a taste of the hard work involved in putting together a dynamic and meaningful school library will re-awaken school trustees to the reality that this work is best left to professional curators rather than political boards.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. April 17, 2022.

Editorial: When inmates die in the Tarrant County Jail, taxpayers need answers — and so do families

A woman who didn’t even know her husband had landed in jail learned he died there not from jail officials but through a Star-Telegram story.

It’s reprehensible, and similar stories of families looking for answers — and finding few — raise alarm bells yet again about prisoner deaths at the Tarrant County Jail.

It is hard enough to be a family member of an incarcerated person who died in custody, but when loved ones cannot find out how their family member died because jail officials are secretive or delay, that’s wrong. Some policies need to change.

Prisoner deaths are unusually high in the Tarrant County Jail. Forty people have died there since 2016, including 17 in 2020 and 12 in 2021; two have died so far this year. That number far outweighs other large Texas counties’ jails. The Dallas County jail saw eight deaths in 2020 and nine in 2021, and that jail houses about 1,600 more inmates.

Of the 40 deaths, officials say, COVID-19 claimed nine prisoners. Three were ruled as suicides, and one prisoner killed his own cellmate. Seventeen prisoners died from health issues they had before they were imprisoned, and those are considered “natural” deaths.

Tarrant County has to overturn every stone to figure out if there’s a systemic problem and, if so, how to address it. Nothing should escape scrutiny, especially staffing levels, training, procedures and leadership.

Two years ago, Sheriff Bill Waybourn said he’d been looking for technology to improve inmate monitoring. Is it up and running yet, and is it effective? Inmates with pre-existing health conditions should not be kept in regular jail cells with healthy inmates. So why were they?

Waybourn, through his staff, declined to answer our questions.

The Texas Rangers usually handle inmate deaths, but answers have been sparse now for the last couple years. It’s time for county commissioners to dig deeper.

Discovering information about the cause of death of a prisoner appears to be no small task. When the Star-Telegram’s Nichole Manna tried to examine deaths going back just six years, it required significant sleuthing and resources that average families — especially in the throes of grief — probably don’t have.

Manna found that when some prisoners die, their loved ones are not immediately informed. After many months, they still don’t know the cause of death. When family members have pressed the jail for answers, especially regarding deaths that seem suspicious, their requests for public records have been delayed or denied for months or years.

There is no reason for a taxpayer-funded jail to be this secretive or for the information flow to be this clogged. Did police, deputies or jailers violate protocols or use excessive force? Did staff neglect to monitor an inmate with medical problems, mental illness or a risk of suicide?

These are questions families have a right to ask. Families have a right to know in a timely manner both the death of a loved one in jail and the cause of death.

Texas law dictates that authorities can withhold any information related to the death of an inmate if they consider the case to be under investigation. Of course, an investigation should not be undermined, but in the case of the man who died after being beaten by jailers, family members say they were never even notified that he was hospitalized.

That hardly seems ethical, even if it’s technically within the bounds of the law. There must be a way to tweak that policy to better serve family members.

Remember, someone processed into the jail isn’t yet guilty in the eyes of the law. The sheriff’s department, through no fault of its own, deals with a disproportionate number of people with mental illness, addiction and often years of under-treated health problems.

But if the state takes someone into custody, it has the obligation to ensure their safety. It’s time for Waybourn and staff to be more transparent and for county commissioners to demand answers and public accountability.

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Houston Chronicle. April 15, 2022.

Editorial: Texas helped pioneer conviction integrity units. Now it should fund them.

The high-profile case and clemency efforts of Melissa Lucio have brought renewed attention to the death penalty in Texas, including from a newly formed state House committee that grilled Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz on Tuesday about his office’s role in setting Lucio’s April 27 execution date — and how they might persuade him to undo it. Prosecutors, the committee made clear, have the power to request the trial court judge withdraw an execution’s date order.

They also have a unique responsibility to uphold justice throughout the process.

But today, across Texas, one of the strongest ways to ensure justice in critical cases such as Lucio’s lacks essential support from the state.

“Statutorily,” Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, vice chair of the committee, told Saenz, “the prosecutor, as well as being a zealous advocate, is seeking an abstract concept of justice.” A prosecutor who becomes aware of problems with a case, or of factors that might mean a defendant is innocent (such as those now alleged by Lucio’s defense team) has a duty to re-evaluate whether justice was done. If it wasn’t, that prosecutor should work to right any wrongs, Moody said.

Several large counties in Texas, including Harris and Dallas, have their own conviction integrity units, or CIUs, dedicated to reviewing innocence or wrongful conviction claims, but those efforts are voluntary and not supported with state funding.

In fact, Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, told the committee that Texas helped pioneer the units, starting with Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ conviction integrity unit in 2007.

The state does provide support for public law school innocence projects. A House bill that ultimately stalled in committee in 2021 would have gone a step farther, creating a conviction integrity unit at the state level in the Attorney General’s Office. Some worried that would duplicate the existing efforts at law schools and that it could create a conflict of interest when lawyers from the AG’s office assist local DAs on cases.

The staff of Harris County’s conviction integrity unit, which includes attorneys, a paralegal and an investigator, reviews claims that convictions were flawed, and if the evidence supports those claims, can refer the cases to a district court.

Harris and Dallas counties were both among the top 10 in the country for exonerations, according to the latest numbers from the National Registry of Exonerations, which identified 74 conviction integrity units across the country in 2020. But numbers have dropped in Harris County after a surge in drug case exonerations between 2014 and 2018. Conviction integrity units are responsible for only a share of all exonerations, but the registry shows that the number of cases cleared on the part of CIUs has climbed steadily since the first one in 2001.

Though Cameron County does not have such a unit, its DA told the Criminal Justice Reform, Interim Study Committee that, in the case of Lucio, his staff was reviewing the relevant clemency documents on its own.

That’s hardly ideal, and lawmakers took note of the lack of state support for conviction integrity units.

“If we expect better results from our prosecutors and for them to look at these things and they are willing to do it we should probably provide them the resources,” Moody said later.

There are important ways to strengthen CIUs to ensure that their work is given real weight and that they have the capacity to handle all cases that merit review. The committee should consider such safeguards in its recommendations for next year’s legislative session.

First and foremost, though, is the issue of funding the units. “They are only possible where the resources are available to do it,” Edmonds told the committee.

As Rep. Jeff Leach, R-San Antonio, who chairs the committee, said Tuesday: “If you don’t fund it, you can’t say it’s a priority.”

Lucio’s case is one of the rare problematic cases that has garnered international attention, but there are, no doubt, many more deserving of another look.

We are encouraged by the committee’s early steps to protect justice in Texas and hope to see some serious weight behind expanding the use of effective conviction integrity units, safeguarded against conflicts of interest, across the state.

A good idea without resources is just a good idea. The question of whether a death penalty case rife with errors and bias gets reviewed should be answered solely in the interest of justice, not in the interest of a county’s limited resources.

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San Antonio Express-News. April 12, 2022.

Editorial: Cruz’s shocking fight against democracy

Storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the rioters sought to subvert the democracy they claimed to be defending. And perhaps, given the prevalence of misinformation and the persistence of the Big Lie, they really believed this.

But they were not alone. They had enablers.

President Donald Trump, who now says he wishes he had marched to the Capitol with the insurrectionists, was the main instigator, lying about a stolen election.

But he, too, had help, lieutenants who assisted publicly and privately.

This brings us to Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who embodies one of the most troubling ironies of this polarized era: Sometimes, the biggest enemies of democracy are those who should be its stoutest defenders.

As a U.S. senator, Cruz had a sacred duty to uphold the Constitution. As a Harvard law graduate, he had the expertise to speak up for democracy.

But according to a recent bombshell story from the Washington Post, Cruz instead worked behind the scenes to help Trump overturn the election.

The Post recently recounted a key piece of dialogue in the conspiracy:

“‘Would you be willing to argue the case?’ Trump asked Cruz, as the senator later recalled it.

“‘Sure, I’d be happy to’ if the court granted a hearing, Cruz said he responded.”

An aside: “The case,” of course, was indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s bid to overturn the election, which has only resulted in Texas State Bar complaints. Paxton may lose his law license for filing the frivolous suit, and Texans are paying for his defense.

For Cruz, though, that telephone conversation set in motion a series of efforts to deny Joe Biden victory at the polls.

Spurred by these findings, the House Jan. 6 committee is trying to determine if Cruz and John Eastman, a friend and fellow attorney, were working in concert to benefit Trump.

What is self-evident is that the two men followed remarkably similar paths to achieve the same end.

Both men clerked for then-U.S. Appeals Court Judge J. Michael Luttig, and both men crafted plans in which Vice President Mike Pence would decertify the Electoral College results. Again, from the Washington Post:

“‘It was a very dangerous proposal, and, you know, could very easily have put us into territory where we got to the inauguration and there was not a president,’ Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a committee member, said earlier this year on the podcast ‘Honestly.’

“‘And I think that Senator Cruz knew exactly what he was doing. I think that Senator Cruz is somebody who knows what the Constitution calls for, knows what his duties and obligations are, and was willing, frankly, to set that aside.’”

Without these machinations behind the scenes, the Jan. 6 revolt never would have happened.

In a statement to the Post, Luttig said Jan. 6 “was all but foreordained, because Cruz was the most influential figure in the Congress willing to force a vote on Trump’s claim that the election was stolen.”

These sad episodes reflect the real tragedy of the attack on the Capitol. The former president may have been the instigator, but the assault would have been impossible without his enablers. They all conspired to shred the Constitution.

That they failed is a credit to the document they sought to undermine. The Founding Fathers, aware of the dangers embodied in a centralized government, created a system with three co-equal branches. It was that dynamic that, in the end, saved our democracy.

Cruz should remember that he won his Senate seat fair and square. Nobody tried to steal his votes. His victories were victories of democracy.

END